I Am Not Tribeless

Random lady on a seemingly wonderful walk. I saved this photo from Unsplash a while ago and as such I don’t remember to whom it belongs.

My name is Faith Mwongeli Malusi. If you didn’t know it from my name yet, I belong to the Kamba tribe, which is one of the five largest tribes in Kenya. My people have inhabited the semi-arid lands of Kenya that stretch east from Nairobi to Tsavo and north up almost to Embu for close to 500 years now. Machakos, Kitui and Makueni counties are synonymous with Ukambani, or the land of the Akamba. I am one of approximately 4.1 million people who can be found in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Paraguay. Yes, Paraguay.

I am from Mbaa Muli — Clan of Muli. I was named after my maternal grandmother -Susu Mwongeli. Malusi, my father’s surname, is our family name. My father, however, is widely known as ‘Mbutu’ a skewed version of the name Mobutu. He was named after the notorious dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, as he was famous during the time my father went to study at The University of Nairobi. He realized that bearing a name like Mobutu was disastrous considering the scathing flaws of its owner, but it was too late as the name had stuck. I can hear, speak and write, although very little, of my native tongue — Kikamba. I know quite a bit about my generational history — my grandmother has made sure of that. I’ve heard about Kilumi, Muuma and Mwilo. From school, I learnt about long-distance trading, agriculture and especially their infamous basketry, pottery and wood carving. My great-great uncle was a nasty colonial chief who tormented my grandfather into grueling hard work until he decided to flee to Nairobi in the late 1950s.

Almost all my relatives, both immediate and distant, have lived or are living in Mwanyani, a small far-flung village in the heart of Kitui Central Constituency, Kitui County. Mwanyani is where my father belongs and based on our relationship, where I too, belong. Mwanyani is a Kamba term that directly translates to ‘where there’s a gap’. The village itself is located in the valley of two hills, with smaller settlements encroached in the slopes of each hill. My father once told me that the hills weren’t always separated, it was instead, one single tall hill that touched the clouds in the morning. During an intermittent war from neighboring clan, the insurgents from Mbaa Muli suffered huge losses in the clashes. As a last resort, the leader of Mbaa Muli prayed to Mulungu to save them from definite death by parting the mountain so that they’d flee. Mulungu agreed and the mountain split into two. The warriors from Mbaa Muli fled using the resulting valley into their lands, safe from the warring clans.

Every time I meet an elder when I am in my village, I am expected to introduce myself. As is the norm, everyone knows everyone in small villages. In spite of it, the introduction as dictated by the Kamba tradition is elaborately long and particular. It requires you to be aware of the names of generational heads as far back as history can permit. It goes as follows:

Witawa ata? (What’s your name?)

Niitawa Mwongeli.(My name is Mwongeli.)

Mwongeli wau? (To whom does Mwongeli belong?)

Mwongeli wa Mbutu? (Mwongeli belongs to Mbutu.)

Mbutu wau? (To whom does Mbutu belong?)

Mbutu wa Mulatya.(Mbutu belongs to Mulatya.)

The exchange continues until you consecutively mention Mwaniki, Mbai, Kiluu, Lika, Mwatwambee and finally Useki and if asked to whom Useki belonged, I’d say, tuumie Kikuyu tuiiana uu, which translates to ‘We left Kikuyu like that.’ My father once explained to me that the reason why no one knows who came before Useki is that Useki had left for Kikuyu land to trade as an angry famine ravaged our land. He came back to find that all the people who knew the history that preceded him had died in the famine. It is these men(and as always, women were not involved in history making) who have given me a tribal identity. An identity that I had no choice in.

I had no choice in any of these events. Events that have shaped me into who I am had no input from the bearer of the effects of said events.

I wasn’t in the committee that decided that my ancestors would move from Central Africa during the Bantu Expansion. I wasn’t consulted when they decided to settle in the present-day Mbooni Hills in the Machakos District of Kenya in the second half of the 17th century. I’m afraid I didn’t get the memo as to why they decided to spread to the greater Machakos, Makueni and Kitui regions. Furthermore, I did not tell the Brits years later to draw lines on a piece of paper and say at some point that the enclosed area — representing the dwelling places of at least 43 other tribes like mine — represented Kenya. I did not choose my Kamba mother to leave her people in Makueni and get married to my Kamba father from Kitui. I didn’t choose to be born in Pumwani Maternity Hospital and be named after my mother’s best high-school friend. And lastly, I didn’t choose to be born in this particular family to these specific people and share an unimaginably beautiful relationship with them.

But here I am.

I’ve developed a Kamba identity and I’ve become a Kamba person. A Kamba person complete with all the tell-tale nuances and peculiarities that define the uniqueness of my ethnic belonging. I cannot separate myself from this aspect of my identity. It’s like my height, the length of my fingers or the size of my brain. The blood of my ancestors flows through my veins, even the collaborators of our dark colonial past. Its written in my genes. I belong to some people, have some history, speak a language, worship(ped) some gods, performed some rituals, told some stories, fought some wars, cried some tears, loved some people and killed other people. I am an accumulation of a history so old, its visible on rock art. Without it, a core part of my identity would disappear. I would stop being me and become someone else. My tribe, like the other components of my identity, defines who I am and distinguishes me from the rest of mankind. The same as your tribe defines you. And that is not a bad thing. In fact, it is necessary. There is no identity without distinction. Ask a logician.

As is with any electioneering period in Kenya, and considering the volatile nature of Kenya’s election periods, the peace gospel has started permeating our media. All forms of it. And as is expected the ‘I am Tribeless’ evangelists have set camp on my Facebook and Twitter timelines. I won’t condemn them. It’s a coping/defense mechanism. As though expunging our tribal identities will in any way erase the sins of our deeply troubled, deeply divided nation. My mother says it’s like placing a bandage over a cracked building.

It is not new that Kenya has always been an ethno-partiachial state. Tribe is King in these lands. We’ve known this since Jomo Kenyatta metamorphosed from an erudite fiery nationalist to a parochial acquisitive tribalist, as Ndii says, since the Moi era, since opposition leaders in multi-party transition of 1992 employed tribalism as their primary tool, since Kibaki tribalised the government, since the painful overflow of suppressed anger of 2007/2008, since the separatist movements of Pwani Si Kenya, well basically since we’ve identified as Kenyans. It’s easy to easily conclude that tribalism is the evil that we should expunge, and perhaps adopt a more befitting identity.

The problem isn’t the tribe.

Claiming that the tribe, the sheer notion of a tribe and belonging to it causes tribalism, and the cure for tribalism is denouncing the tribe, is intellectual laziness.

Tribalism isn’t caused by the tribe, just as racism isn’t caused by the race. Any ism isn’t caused by the factor of uniqueness that defines it. Tribalism, like any other ism, is caused by the imagined superiority and causal power that people belonging to a particular tribe project onto themselves. The tribe isn’t bad, the people in the tribe who do shitty things and claim that their tribe is better that others, are the bad ones. It’s the way we think and talk about it that can be, and often is, bad. So, now what?

Maybe we should embrace nationalism. True civic and culturally grounded nationalism. But even the stakes are low. The Kenyan populace has marinated into the broth for generations, it is almost impossible to be clean up the eventual intellectual, social-economic and political mess. But there’s hope. Because unlike tribe, I can choose my nation. I can choose to belong to a nation. Being born in Kenya, doesn’t make you a Kenyan. You chose to be Kenyan. Being a patriot is a choice. Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (that I saw from a friend’s reading list) defines a nation as:

An imagined political community-and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion…. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined…. Finally, [the nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willing to die for such limited imaginings.”

That regardless of the actual inequity and exploitation that may prevail in each(community), the nation is conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship, and that would be enough to claim an identity as imagined as nationhood.

But, as Giovanna Bunei (@giobunei) mentioned on twitter following the recent killings in Kisumu, Mathare and Kibera initiated by state machinery, ‘#GitheriMan didn’t unite us. Our athletes didn’t unite us. If we were united, an attack on one Kenyan would be an attack on all of us.’ That is the problem we should be solving, not burying our heads in the sand and saying, like a hollow tin can “I am tribeless.”

Ethno-nationalism continues to bury us all.

And even then, I am and will not be tribeless. I am Kamba.

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